‘The Habit of Art’ is a new play by Alan Bennett. I turned up an hour and a half before the show was due to begin. There were only a few seats left, but I managed to get one in the fourth row of the stalls for only £10. Apparently the first four rows at all three theatres in the National are sold at that price. I love being close to the action, so it was the ideal seat for me. Had I been just one row behind, it would have cost me £44 !
The play itself featured a rehearsal (at the National itself) of a play about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. Extremely funny and very thought-provoking. A stellar cast included Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner, the National’s Director.
At the end the audience clapped enthusiastically. In New York there would have been a standing ovation. But London is more restrained.
The National Theatre, built in the 70s, is not an architectural masterpiece – unless you like concrete. But I love all three of the theatres it houses: the Lyttelton, where ‘The Habit of Art’ is playing; the Olivier with its vast open stage named after the great actor himself who was also the first director of the National Theatre (when it was still at the Old Vic) and the small flexible Cottesloe Theatre.
There’s always a great buzz at the National which nearly always has live music in the foyer, art exhibitions on the landings, the usual cafes, bars and restaurants and a great bookshop. We are so lucky in this country to have such a wonderful National theatre.
And the whole South Bank area was buzzing too. I had an hour to spare yesterday before the show so I strolled outside. There – as well as magnificent views of the River Thames, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on the other river bank – there are bookshops, cafes, restaurants, the London Eye, street entertainers, human statues, a skateboard park (complete with lurid grafitti), the Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre.
I would have liked to return by boat from the Westminster pier just outside the National Theatre to Greenwich. But by the time the show ended, the last boat had left. There’s a more frequent service in the summer. So I look forward to that treat later this year.